Zlatan Ibrahimović is a megastar in Paris, the best footballer to come out of Sweden, and a talented bike thief. You can bring up his shady childhood at your leisure; he’s not ashamed. Ibrahimović says it made him who he is. And he’s right: you can’t understand the man without looking at his background.
Ibrahimović grew up the child of divorced parents – an alcoholic Bosnian father and an overworked cleaning lady mother from Croatia – in one of the worst areas of Malmö. Many of his childhood friends were – and still are – in trouble with the police. To this day, one of his former teachers believes Ibrahimović only came to school because lunch was free, not because he intended to learn.
If life is a race, Ibrahimović had to start from the changing rooms. During his early years, he stood out most on the sports field for behaving like a blockhead and stealing bikes after the game. Ibrahimović was offended every time he didn’t get the ball. He was selfish. He was quick to react to any kind of provocation. Here was a boy who life hadn’t treated kindly, and as a result he seemed intent on ruining everything.
Zlatan in numbers
The 34-year-old Swede, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, is the quintessential centre-forward: tough and artful, he has a powerful shot and can slot perfectly into any team
Like Ronaldo, he has scored a goal in every possible minute. He’s the Swedish national team’s most prolific scorer, with more than 60 goals. Statistically, he scores in every second international
Unmatched: ‘Ibra’ has scored for six different clubs in the Champions League
The 6ft 5in giant has been voted his country’s Footballer Of The Year 10 times. That’s a world record
But who needs stats? Ibra’s famous bicycle-kick goal from 30 yards against England in 2012 says more than a thousand numbers
Malmö FF was his first professional port of call. When he made his debut in 1999, Ibrahimović was almost 18 and technically good for someone standing 6ft 5in tall, but he was thin, skinny even.
It isn’t easy to say when he decided to completely turn his life around. Maybe it was the moment he finally got a fair crack at something. In the senior squad, no one cares whether your mum and dad loved you or not; the only thing that matters is your performance.
The effect this can have on a person experiencing it for the first time shouldn’t be underestimated. Malmö FF changed everything. His team captain at the time, Hasse Mattisson, describes Ibrahimović’s transformation better than anyone: “At first it was anger. Then it was will.”
Ibrahimović is living every B-movie director’s favourite plot, fighting his way from the very bottom to the very top.
He’s been a league-winner in all but two football seasons since 2002-2003, with Juventus (though their two titles were later revoked as a result of the Italian football scandal), Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan, and Paris Saint-Germain. Money scores goals, you say? Maybe. But Ibrahimović wins titles.
Today, aged 34, the Swede bears little resemblance on the pitch to the player of yore. His deserved reputation as a hothead is no longer applicable; in the first 31 league games of the current season, he has scored 27 goals. And as for yellow cards? Just the one.
Zlatan Ibrahimović is one of the most determined and effective players in world football. There are no unnecessary tricks, no dummies. His game is all about dynamism, strength and focusing on what counts: the goal. He has battled his way up from the changing rooms, and he isn’t ready to give up his place any time soon. By channelling the anger of the disadvantaged, Ibrahimović has become great and earned his biggest advantage: the will to win.